Today, within the span of several hours, I received several inquiries from separate sources wondering if 9” x 12” paper was acceptable for orchestral use, or if 10” x 13” was necessary. (Of course, these are North American paper sizes.)
This question comes up quite a bit, but today it seemed like rapid-fire. The query seems to arise every so often on the various Facebook groups related to music engraving and score preparation.
So, in brief, here’s my experience.
9” x 12” is perfectly acceptable. Based on working with hundreds of orchestras and direct feedback from countless librarian and performer colleagues, it’s not the size of the page that they’re really concerned about. It’s the legibility of the music.
If the staff lines and notes are large enough to read, you’re good. If you have itty-bitty notes with no cues, it won’t matter if you have a page that is 5 feet tall, you’ll still have a revolt on your hands.
What’s a good staff size? I thought you’d never ask…
The sweet spot for much of the music I prepare is around 7.5 mm. For studio sessions and other instances where music is sight-read, the stands are shared, and/or lighting is sub-optimal, 7.7 mm is nice; for chamber music that is likely to have the benefit of a lot of rehearsal, 7.3 mm or even smaller can be just fine. Sometimes adjustments are necessary based on the style and genre of the music, so don’t take these measurements as gospel. And when the music is being read on the likes of iPads, all bets are off, given that the music is likely to be resized to fit the screen.
Don’t take my word for it; the authoritative MOLA Guidelines for Music Preparation, updated this year for the first time in a decade by some of the best in the business, advises the same.
Of course, the larger the paper, the more music you can fit. This can make laying out your music and finding page turns easier, but with a good copyist it’s rarely a problem.
The reason 9” x 12” has evolved as acceptable is that it’s still larger than 8.5” x 11” but can be printed by laser printers that can print 18” x 12” (for booklet printing) but don’t take up an entire room. These printers aren’t exactly tiny, but it is possible to transport an HP LaserJet 5200 to a session for on-site printing, if necessary.
Once you get to 19” x 13” or 20” x 13” you have to print on a huge commercial printer (unless you use an inkjet printer, which is totally unacceptable; heaven forbid your music encounter the slightest bit of moisture). 9.5” x 13” is often used even when 10” x 13” is insisted upon because 19” x 13” is a standard digital paper size.
For many years, 9.5” x 12.5” was a standard size because it was widely used in the sadly all-but extinct world of hand-copied music. Even after music became mostly copied on computers, 9.5” x 12.5” was still regularly used, but 9” x 12” is a perfectly fine alternative for the reasons stated above.
You can still find 9.5” x 12.5” manuscript paper at Judy Green Music and perhaps in some specialty stores. When I was a graduate student at Juilliard in the 1990s, they sold it at the bookstore, but I don’t know if that’s still the case.
My friend Charlie Waters wrote an excellent essay in 2002 about the world of hand-copied music and finding manuscript paper at the legendary Associated Music Copy Service (not to be confused with Associated Music Publishers).
I’m lucky enough to have in my possession a number of charts copied by the great Bert Kosow, who, in addition to being a premier copyist of his time, ran a successful music copying class in the 1980s where no detail was too small to overlook, including the precise make and model of the Pelikan Graphos pen that was recommended. All of that music was copied on 9.5” x 12.5” paper.
This barely scratches the surface of the history of music page sizes, so if you have stories you’d like to share or additional information you’d like to provide — or, more topically, current experience you have preparing music on different page sizes — please feel free to comment below!